Illuminati Creative Technology, Colchester UK

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Stage Lighting: A basic technology manual.

Showing your art in a good light

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Lighting techniques for fine art : Some simple rules

Artworks are delicate. Light them carelessly and they will be shown "in a bad light" both literally and metaphorically.

Lighting methods for both flat and three dimensional, art closely mirrors stage lighting techniques, but with some important differences:

Flat artworks: it is essential to offer a colour temperature and intensity which not only mirror the artists own requirements, but minimise damage as far as possible. To this end you might think about the conditions in which it was originally painted and shown. When placing your luminaires, avoid veiling reflections which make the work difficult to see: Make sure that you are able to position your lamp in such a position that a person of between 1200mm (4') and 1950 (6'6") tall cannot see the source reflected in the glass or varnish from any reasonable viewing distance and angle. I don't recommend incandescent or fluorescent picture lights attached to the wall immediately above the painting. the angles are all wrong and heat could be a problem.

In contrast the following is repeated verbatim, and without particular recommendation from the solux web site

When is the last time you heard someone, especially an art critic say something good about museum lighting? This was written by the Independent, a British publication, about SoLux used at the Van Gogh Museum to illuminate Van Gogh and Gauguin masterpieces:

The show will delight Van Gogh and Gauguin groupies and academics alike, for the best gourmet-gourmand reason: the paintings seem naked, new and endless...the hi-tech radiance (SoLux) that shines down on The Sower, and other paintings, is thoroughly democratic, there is no bias towards bleak chaos; the slightest variation in colour density, the plasticity or patterning of brush strokes, even the micro-thin shadow lines - all are even-handedly revealed. And, in most of Van Gogh's canvases and later Gauguin's, all seems forever young... the effect is electrifying: the paint still looks wet; one waits instinctively for a waft of linseed.

In addition to the superior color rendering abilities, SoLux has been engineered to have very low heat (IR) output and ultra-low UV output. That combined aspect of extremely high color rendering and extremely low UV and low IR is extraordinary. It means that with SoLux, you will have the brilliance of daylight without the negatives aspects of UV and IR.

Personally, I would be inclined to light different Van Gogh paintings in different ways. While "The Potato Eaters" for example looks as though it was painted in a dark studio, many of the Arles pictures were painted in bright Provencal sunlight, and made to be shown in a room with lots of natural light.

Potato Eaters

The Potato Eaters - like the subject - has a thick coarse rough cast effect and needs to be lit from above and very slightly to one side with a hardish light source to show the deliberate brush strokes (after due consideration of veiling reflections and shadowing) I suggest tungsten halogen, slightly dimmed, perhaps 70% to create a slight red shift which has been lost with age and fading. This will give the painting the earthy tone it was surely intended to have.If the painting is framed, then it needs to be carefully shuttered down to the picture area, and so a profile luminaire might be appropriate.


On the other hand, Van Gogh's bedroom is full of bright vibrant colour. A tungsten lamp would add unnecessary warmth, so we need a lamp with as near as possible with a colour rendering index ( Ra) of as near 100 as possible. There are a few lamps on the market which claim a Ra of 100, but looking at the spectrum, some have a pronounced spike in the green and others in the blue. The Solux lamp seems a good choice here. As the paint is applied in a far more even and detailed way, I would consider using a softer light which could happily light the frame as well. For this reason, I would place the lamp centrally at an angle of 45 degrees to the work ( after due consideration of veiling reflections and shadowing)

Diptych This is the Wilton Diptych: Painted in the time of Richard 2nd. Like Giotto, Cimabue and other artists from about 1300, it was likely to have been painted in candlelit studios and shown in religious settings. An enormous amount of gold leaf combined with vivid colours made works like these glow numinously in the candlelight or single shaft of light from a high clerestory window with a mysterious power that suggests the presence of a spirit or god. The Wilton Diptych was shown recently, relit in its full glory by candlelight and proved to be staggeringly beautiful. In a modern gallery setting, it might best be lit by several large diffuse sources, and the luminaires placed deliberately where the reflections can be reflected back to the viewer.
Three dimensional works. The artist might very well have something to say about the way their piece is to be lit! But bear in mind that shadow and highlight have an enormous impact on the way a piece is interpreted and perceived, as does colour, texture, hardness or softness of the beam and the ability to control the beam shape, and so the ideal is to be able to place any number of any kind of light source in any position in the three-dimensional space frame relative to the work to be lit..
Rodin: The Kiss Sculptures present an entirely different challenge. Usually presented "in-the -round", they are designed to be viewed from all angles. However the curator places them, there will be an initial view, as the visitors enter the chamber and catch their first sight. This is the "Keyframe" which has to be especially considered. Other keframes depend on the configuration of the room, and need to be carefully assessed.In the view shown, you might think that a stong hard backlight showing both faces might be approriate, supplemented by two softer fill lights, placed evenly at 120 degree of a circle. Here you do not need to worry at all about light damage, or unless it is excessive, heat damage. Think about where the shadows will fall on the floor and how they might contribute to the plasticity of the moulding. Think about where the lamps can be placed to minimise light in the eyes of the viewer. You might even consider a scenario where the piece is lit in several different ways on a subtle crossfader where the softly changing shadows might give a feeling of timelessness. This was designed to be seen outdoors, so careful filtering might be needed to bring out the character of the stone in a diffuse northern European light..
Angel of the North

This can be seen for miles. During the day it is imposing enough, but at night it needs to be absolutly mythic. Light it with a low bright, white wide backlight fanning out through the wings, perhaps slowly pulsing in intensity, with just the face lit, allowing a second stream of light to fan out behind.

A word of caution. You need to consult with the Civil Aviation Authority for anything involving beams of light that bright pointing upwards. Also the light pollution laws need to be thought about.


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